Regen Magazine Interview with Brent Daniels
Fri, May 20 2011 10:52
Note: thanks to Ilker Yücel, editor of RegenMag, for allowing me to repost this while their website is being restructured.
Brent Daniels - Reemergence from the Lonely Place
An Interview with Brent Daniels
Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2009
By: Ilker Yücel Editor
Brent Daniels is not the biggest name in the world of electronica, although he has garnered no small amount of respect for his work in the arena of film soundtracks. Known primarily as "Free," as the vocalist for Hednoize, he and former Psykosonik member Daniel Lenz produced an album of hard-hitting industrial textures, lush ambient passages, and grooving rhythms – a combination that yielded the critically acclaimed but popularly overlooked album Searching for the End. From the album, Hednoize found their music featured in several popular film and TV soundtracks, including La Femme Nikita, 3000 Miles to Graceland, and Charlie's Angels. While that band has been in a state of hibernation since 2000, Daniels has spent the past several years teaching seminars on music technology, sound design, and composition at schools around the country, broadening the younger generation's minds toward the benefits of music and emphasizing the importance of education. Now, after several years out of the limelight, Brent Daniels returns to making music for film as the score composer for the upcoming espionage thrilled A Lonely Place for Dying, directed by Justin Evans, and starring James Cromwell (I, Robot, The Green Mile) and Michael Wincott (The Crow, Strange Days). Having released a four-track single for the theme song, a blistering rock track of raging guitars, thunderous rhythms, and Daniels' passionate and emotive voice, and containing remixes by Daniels, Lenz, and guitarist Bern Locker, A Lonely Place for Dying marks the return of Brent Daniels to the front lines of the music world. Currently working on the full score for the film, Daniels brings us into his process of composition and collaboration, the development of his music and his methods, and just what the future has in store for his newfound solo career and the return of Hednoize!
Let's start with your current project, the score for the feature film A Lonely Place for Dying. First of all, given your history as an electronica artist, how did you first come to be involved in this project?
Daniels: I've known A Lonely Place for Dying's director and writer, Justin Evans, since about 2000. Justin had actually approached my old record label trying to get in touch with Hednoize to hire us as sound designers and composers for an animated CGI TV show he was developing. As I recall, he never heard anything back from TVT after repeated requests and somehow got in touch with Daniel Lenz and I directly, and we started working together on this show he had come up with called Noz and Grakk: Alien Abductors. It was going to be dark comedy, and it looked like it had a lot of potential: great premise, awesome conceptual art, great voice talent. Daniel and I wrote a theme and tracked all the dialogue for the pilot, which was pretty fun from our sci-fi geek perspective; James Earl Jones and Mark Hamill were two of the actors on the show. Ultimately, the show didn't end up happening, but Justin and I kept in contact over the years and have since become close friends. Then, last year, he approached me to score a short film he wrote and directed called Saturday Night Special, a crime drama, and we had a blast doing that, so when he raised the investment money for A Lonely Place for Dying based off the festival success he had with the short, he approached me again to score the feature and so I said I was in. It interested me because it's an espionage action thriller with a lot more dialogue than your average action film – great dialogue – and I also thought it was a great story with some compelling things to say. I'm also a bit of a political and historical junkie on top of being a film buff, so it was something I wanted to be involved in. Plus I had scored short films before, and though I consider myself a recording artist and songwriter first, I wanted to score a feature- length film.
You've released a four-track single for the soundtrack, a sort of theme song to the film, and while the remixes by yourself and your former Hednoize partner Daniel Lenz are much more in the electronica vein that you've been known for, the song proper has a much more rock-oriented vibe to it. Is this song intended to mark a stylistic change in style and musical approach for you, or was it written as such for the purposes of the soundtrack?
Daniels: It's the latter. Justin really wanted a theme song for the film, similar to how all the Bond films have a theme song, and this being an espionage-related film, he thought it would be cool to do an homage to that style of cinema, the difference being that A Lonely Place for Dying has no tongue-in-cheek aspects to it; the action scenes are realistic and brutal, not slick, and what's happening to the spies in this film from both an action and a historical perspective is not glamorous at all – very rooted in reality. I thought it was a great spin. So that was the initial concept.
Then when they dialed the story in, Justin informed me they were setting the it in 1972, and I asked him how we were going to handle this musically, since the original idea was to have this theme song as the opening credits music, and if my track was fairly modern – me-sounding – it might be a little anachronistic to suddenly drop down into a Vietnam-era story. So we tried to find a way for me to write and produce a track that was true to myself musically and appropriate for the film, while at the same time having a viable piece of music, not like writing a 'Beatles-style period song' like they did in That Thing You Do. Justin gave me a lot of suggestions for stylistic influence that would fit the film: freedom rock, Hendrix, The Who, Aerosmith. But he also wanted the track to be fairly dramatic and dark. Dramatic and dark are pretty easy for me, but I was struggling a little trying to figure out who I could be myself in a deliberate classic rock context and pull it off. I hadn't done anything like that before, and I just couldn't hear it in my head, so Justin and I were talking one night about the emotion of the song, and he said something that really clicked and really made it easy for me. I think we were talking about the verses before I had written them, and he said, 'Yeah, you know, the verses can be really dark, like if Nine Inch Nails existed in 1972.' From that point, it was a snap. I could just send myself back in time musically. I'm not sure if that makes sense. As long as I was free to express myself lyrically and could tie it in thematically with the characters in the film, and if I just restricted myself to the instruments and effects that would have been available in the early '70s, I'd be OK. I could just write the song like I normally would. I'd just be myself; I wouldn't change how I sing or play. I would just work within a few given parameters. So the track came pretty fast after that.
I actually had a lot of fun doing that song, because it was really challenging for me to trust the lyrics and melody to speak and put away my whole bag of modern production tricks and all of my sound design and programming, which I consider to be half of who I am musically in any given song I record, and just as important for the identity and emotion of the song as the lyrics and melody. I had never mixed and produced a straight-up rock track before, and it was a little nerve-wracking, feeling like I was putting myself out there all alone without my sounds and production, but in the end, it worked out great; a song is a song is a song, I guess, hopefully in this case a good one. So I'm most definitely not going 'All rock guitars, no synths, guitar solos only' from now on. And though I did enjoy recording 'A Lonely Place for Dying' with the self-imposed production restrictions, I have to say that my remix version is not only closer to the sound that I would like to be known for, but it was a hell of a lot more fun to put together. I needs me synths!
How will the rest of the score follow in this style, if at all?
Daniels: I have a little more freedom with the actual score. I'm not going to be doing stutter edits on audio or anything hyper-modern like that, but I will be doing as much creative sound design as possible and using everything in my arsenal, software-wise. I built a really cool analog processing rig this last summer with a Sherman Filterbank, a few Moogerfooger pedals, some Metasonix stuff, and a Future Retro XS SemiModular synth that I'm looking forward to running some stuff through. I'll definitely use some rhythm guitar and keep some of that rock vibe going where it works and try and get some big John Bonham drum sounds going and go off the rhythmic motif I established in the theme song, possibly. I have a really big, open living room with high ceilings that is absolute crap for listening to music or watching a movie in but would make a great drum room, so I think I'll track some drums in there. And then there's just a whole 'we'll see what happens' element. I've seen a little of the footage, which looks incredible, and I've read the script, but I really need to sit and watch a rough cut of the film and hear what happens in my head as I'm watching. I don't want to pre- conceptualize too much. I already have some themes from the theme song that I can draw on, and that, along with some sample preparation I've done, is probably enough until I hit 'Record.'
As every composer and musician has a different approach to different projects, what would you say have been the major challenges for you in scoring a film? What is your process like when creating music for the scenes, and how does it compare to when you're writing more, shall we say, pop-oriented formats like 'A Lonely Place for Dying' or even your work in Hednoize?
Daniels: For me, it's actually very liberating working to picture. I respond well to serving the images and the emotion on screen. It's like having a collaborator who can pick up the slack so I don't have to do all the work. I'm just there to support what's happening; I don't have to, and shouldn't be, the sole focus, and that really lets me relax and enjoy the process of making music. In my own music, at least lately, I'm the sole creator, the guy producing, the singer, engineer...I'm wearing all the hats. And as much as I do like having that control, it's really nice to take part in someone else's creative vision, to collaborate rather than having to be the guy who comes up with the idea and then sustains that through completion.
Speaking of your partnership with Daniel Lenz, while Hednoize has only released one album, 2000's Searching for the End, he did a remix on the single, and you contributed to two tracks on his solo album, Stuck in a Dream. How would you describe your association with Daniel now versus when you first started working with him more than 10 years ago, and what are the chances that we might see some new material under the Hednoize moniker?
Daniels: Daniel and I are still very close and still have that creative connection that's very rare and special. Things didn't end up working out between TVT Records and Hednoize, and the stress of that and being drained and frustrated professionally and creatively caused us to split up for a couple years a few years back, and we went our separate ways to work by ourselves and with different artists for awhile. It's probably the best thing we could have done. The time we spent apart creatively helped us independently learn new stuff musically and production-wise that we may not have learned because we working together. And now that we're label- free and with the classic model for music distribution now swinging into the realm of artist control, we're definitely feeling that releasing our independent projects and working together as Hednoize can happen now on our own terms, so Daniel and I will definitely be releasing some new Hednoize material. In fact, we have at least one very strong track that we started last year just hanging out in my studio that we're going to finish first. Both of us have been so busy working on our day to day projects that we haven't had the time lately, but I would say there should definitely be something in 2009.
Over the years, you've had the opportunity to work with a variety of artists outside of the electronica realm, remixing for Marcy Levy, Bern Locker (who also played guitar on 'A Lonely Place for Dying'), and working with songwriters like Mick Jones (Foreigner), Rick Knowles and Billy Steinberg (Madonna, Dido). First of all, how do you find that working with these various individuals has been of benefit to your skills as a musician and producer?
Daniels: I'm always learning. I'm always trying to keep my ears open when I'm in a studio environment with people who posses a skill set that I don't or who are more experienced, be it in songwriting, singing, programming, performing, engineering, mixing, or producing, whatever. Those moments are part of what it's all about for me. I'm a sponge, and my obsession for perfection in what I do compels me to voraciously devour any information I can get. Growing up, everything I knew about the recording process I had to glean from Keyboard Magazine and my own trial and error. Later on, I studied theory and composition in school, but I didn't have any formal training in audio engineering or synthesis, so I had to teach myself a lot. So I'm very, very appreciative that in my career so far I've had the chance to meet successful creative people and get a glimpse into how they do what they do and to benefit from that.
How difficult is it for you to adapt your style of working to these various artists and genres?
Daniels: Most of the situations I've been in I don't have to do too much adapting, fortunately. I mean, if it's jazz or bluegrass piano, I am not your man, but typically the stuff I've done is composition, songwriting, singing, keys, programming, or editing in an electronic/rock/pop context, where I'm pretty comfortable.
You're also known as 'Free.' How did you come by this nickname, and as your credits always seem to use your full name of Brent Daniels, what is the purpose of the pseudonym? Which do you prefer to be referred to as?
Daniels: I think around college in the early '90s, during the first Gulf War, I remember there being a resurgence of social/political activism, at least in my community, and I think part of my involvement in that was calling myself Free. It also was a way of expressing a bit of who I was, who I wanted to be known as, as an individual and as an artist. People call me both, and I'm afraid I've made it confusing for everyone, including myself and for my career, by not just going with one or the other. I respond to both. I think most of my friends call me Free.
In the interim between Hednoize and A Lonely Place for Dying, you'd also done some music seminars or something of the sort for elementary schools, demonstrating to children the capabilities of music technology and emphasizing the importance of education. Is this something you're still involved in? How did you find that helping to shape young people's minds through music had an effect on the way that you perform and think about music?
Daniels: Yes, I'm still involved with that. I had a lot of opportunities to be around talented, creative people when I was younger, and most of these people were either educators or I met them in educational environments, so I think that aspect really rubbed off on me. My uncle in particular is a sculptor and educator, and I can remember at a very young age working in his studio, sorting screws into jars for a penny apiece, just waiting for the chance when I would get to use the wax injector with one of his molds. He's a brilliant guy, and I was one of his students just by being around him growing up. There was always an explanation for a creative process he employed or some modification he made to a piece of equipment that made it function better or last longer. Because of that influence, I find the processes of creating and learning inextricably linked. One of the biggest early draws for me as a musician was listening to one of my favorite artists and going, 'How the hell did they make that sound?' And that process of discovery, through research or practice or trial and error, is obviously all learning, so if I can inspire some kid in school to ask those same kinds of questions, and that puts them on a similar creative path, that makes me feel good. That's what was done for me.
Recalling an interview you'd done for Hednoize in which you described the process as having created a large assortment of samples and sound design with a minimal amount of equipment, sampling seemed to be a key element to your demonstrations for the school seminars. As music technology has expanded further into the realm of software and digital programming and distribution, what are your thoughts on the current and future state of music technology? What would you say are the pros and cons of the new tools versus the old tools?
Daniels: Currently, there is a metric crap-ton of amazing music software available across all platforms that will run on a very inexpensive CPU. Honestly, it's never been a better time for creative people; the tools we have at our disposal are mind- blowing. I am a huge technology advocate and am in no way some kind of musical purist. I feel very fortunate to be alive at this moment from a music technology standpoint. I feel very lucky I wasn't born in the Tin Pan Alley era. However, computers are still just tools, and the old maxim 'garbage in, garbage out' still applies. We have affordable, amazing-sounding software synths with hundreds of presets, and loop libraries and sample construction kits readily available, and on and on. But if people are regurgitating music using the same components, well, it's not going to be something I'm going to want to listen to. I still need to have those 'How the hell did they do that?' moments, and I seem to be having less and less of them. Of course, I spend an inordinate amount of time in my cave.
The other downside for me personally is that because of this computing power and some of the deeper software I use, like Kyma or Reaktor, with enough time and acumen, I can literally do anything I imagine sonically, which is of course also an extreme upside. Like any powerful thing, it's totally a dual-edged sword. Option overload becomes a huge issue. You can blow eight hours drawing in automation for a synth plug-in and be no closer to finishing your track, because frankly, your synth part sucked in the first place, so it's important to try and stay focused and maybe just keep it simple. Just because you can do everything sonically doesn't mean you should. Of course, this is just my own personal experience, and the older I get, the more I want the near- immediacy of the finished song, and I find that I don't really spend eight hours tweaking one sound anymore. Or maybe I'm just a lot faster now.
As far as old versus new tools, I'll use anything at my disposal if it gets the job done. I still have legacy Apple computers, like a 1994- era PowerPC 7100 running OS 7.6 just for transferring files to an ancient Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler, the one I used to develop the 'Hook Generator' effect that's used in 'Woven' and 'Drain' and a few others on the Hednoize record. Daniel came up to my place a couple months ago, and we busted out an old Mac strictly to do offline processing of audio files with apps like Sonicwerk Artist, software they don't make anymore, and which, while frankly a pain in the ass to use, still made us create some sounds a certain way, and that may be lacking in this 'always -real-time' mode of sound design and programming I've been employing the last couple years. So some old, some new, as long as it makes brutal or beautiful noises I'm going to use it.
You mentioned being a political and historical junkie as well as being a film buff. As such themes are common in the electronic genre – especially the harder forms like industrial, which Hednoize toyed with on several tracks – how much would you say those subjects factor into your lyrics? What message do you hope to convey to your listeners, or is there even a message? Is there any over-arcing theme that pervades throughout?
Daniels: I feel like I've gone through a real transformation regarding my creative process the last five years, and by necessity I now find myself compelled to resist restricting myself when writing. Lyrically, there are definite thematic and word-specific rule sets Daniel and I employed for the Hednoize record that I find aren't conducive to truly expressing myself for my solo material (or indeed, with both of us evolving, may not work for Hednoize anymore either; we'll cross that bridge when we come to it). For example, for me, 'A Lonely Place for Dying' is a song about a loss of religious faith, and I think it can be taken as a pretty direct statement about existence. Secondarily, and true to the voice of the protagonist in the film, it's about a loss of faith in country; I was also writing the track at a time when I, like a lot of other Americans, was very tired, very frustrated with the path our country has been on, so it was also a direct political comment about America. Both are things that in the past I may not have commented on in this medium but now feel compelled to voice. At the same time I like writing stuff in a way that can be interpreted in a completely different way. With the right perspective, that song can be a complete statement of faith, too.
But I would say overall, nowadays I feel an urge to add something to the discussion, so to speak. I love ear candy, and for me a lot of music I love is just about the visceral reaction to the sound design or melody, irrespective of the lyric or even in spite of it, but I think I want to go deeper. I'd like to make more than a sonic impact on people. I'd to affect change. I don't know how the young idealist has resurfaced in me recently and is somehow co-existing with the crusty old cynic, but he is, and I think that's going to find its way into my lyrics on future solo stuff. I'm not sure how that's going to sound or work. I'll just have to do it and see. But my heart wants to go there. I may even start singing about love – the horror!
With regards to film music, it's interesting because my introduction to you was Hednoize's 'Loaded Gun' on the soundtrack to La Femme Nikita (the TV series), and we have since heard Hednoize in 3000 Miles to Gracelandand Charlie's Angels. For Saturday Night Special, will that film be released in any sort of format, or will the soundtrack? And on that note, will the soundtrack to A Lonely Place for Dying be released as a Brent Daniels solo album, and when can we expect such a release?
Daniels: Justin did release Saturday Night Special on DVD. It's a 14-minute short, though, so there's not a whole lot of music, probably about five minutes total, so it's not something I'll release as a soundtrack. He did a heck of a lot with the DVD though, lots of extras from which burgeoning filmmakers can glean information about getting their independent film into festivals, pretty interesting stuff. I did a commentary track about the music in which I talk about about my process, which was fun. There's also a one-minute-long unreleased Hednoize track in the credits called 'Who Am I,' which Daniel and I did after Searching for the End came out. That's actually one we're probably going to expand into a full track at some point. So if you're interested in hearing me ramble on about time compression or are a Brent Daniels/Hednoize completist, you might want to check it out. And right now the plan definitely is to put out the A Lonely Place for Dying soundtrack as another solo release. I'm recording everything in February 2009, so I imagine I should have it out sometime in the spring.
You worked with Bern Locker on 'A Lonely Place for Dying,' and he was also involved in Hednoize, contributing guitar to 'Army of One.' Tell us about your association with him, how you two came to work together, and what your working dynamic is like with him. How does his style complement yours, and how is working with him different from Daniel Lenz?
Daniels: Bern's just awesome: totally cool vibe and a killer guitar player as well as a killer producer. I met Bern when we were about halfway through recording Searching for the End. I went to dinner with Hednoize's A and R person, and Bern and his manager were also there. Bern had just licensed one of his Urban Voodoo tracks, 'Brutality,' to TVT for the Mortal Kombat: Annihilation soundtrack, and he was looking at possibly signing with them. I just remember me and Bern sitting at the other end of the table and just blowing each other's mind talking about music, gabbing away. We just really connected. Shortly after that, Bern came over to the Hednoize place in the valley and brought all these boutique guitar pedals over. We pulled up a drum loop in Studio Vision Pro and just let that run for a long time, and I sat on the floor working the pedals, and he was playing all kinds of crazy shit, and we ran that pedal chain off to DAT. I dumped that audio into the computer and took a couple days and went through the whole session, making loops and doing sound design, and gave him a copy for his library, and Daniel and I picked out a couple things that we used in 'Army of One.' We broke our 'no real guitars' rule on that one. Basically, it's the chorus guitar riff, and then actually the harmonics/wah chord progression in the first part of the bridge was samples I made of Bern, as well.
After that, we didn't really work together much on anything until I was producing a band in Louisiana, and he flew out just to hang for a couple weeks and maybe add a little guitar. I had a blast listening to him just smoke along with the playback. We tracked a ton of stuff, all of it like total gold. I mean, literally, every single thing he does with his pedals and performance-wise is killer, every time. It's really a thrill to be around a talent like that, someone who is communicating so much, so directly, with their instrument, really inspiring. Bern is super-creative, and on that Urban Voodoo record he did, he did a lot of real clever programming, and he's excellent at it, but I think nowadays he'd rather just be playing and not dealing with the technical crap that comes along with programming, and I can't blame him. So when he and I are working on something, like the last time we got together for him to play the solo on 'A Lonely Place for Dying,' I run the rig and he just does his thing. He knocked that solo out on the first take, no warm-up, totally nailed it to the wall.
We decided to do a little side project; he thought it might be cool to go for a Depeche Mode meets Black Sabbath meets The Cure kind of thing, so we already started one track when he came up for the A Lonely Place for Dying session, which is really, really cool. As soon as we both find some time, we're going to finish that track up, maybe do a little EP. It's definitely a different way than Daniel and I would work, where traditionally the track starts from a keyboard/programming angle, whereas with Bern and I thus far it's started from guitar riffs, which is fun.
Although, for a piano player, I'm having way too much fun playing guitars myself now – I started playing a lot a couple years ago – so the way Daniel and I approach Hednoize songs may change slightly now as far as where a song starts and what's ultimately playing in it. Evolution is good. And frankly, creatively for me, picking up the guitar has been one of the biggest shots in the arm for me musically, and I'm so happy I started doing it. I never would have played the chord progression for 'A Lonely Place for Dying' on piano. That was something that came out picking up the guitar. It just really makes me come up with different stuff musically than I ever would on piano. It's really cool to feel like I have this instant inspiration for a new song every time I pick up a guitar, because it's so new to me as a compositional tool. I'm sure that'll change eventually, but for now, it's an incredible place for me to start musically, even if I end up pulling the guitars out and just using the chord structure.
We had asked Paul Sebastien in an interview with him for Basic Pleasure Model about the possibility of you two working together, since you have similar vocal styles and both have a relationship with Daniel Lenz, and we understand that you came to work with Daniel because you were a fan of Psykosonik. Have either of you approached the other about such a project, especially now that you both contributed to Daniel Lenz's solo album?
Daniels: I haven't talked to Paul in a long, long time. I think Paul's really talented, a really great guy, too. I was a huge big Psykosonik fan in the early '90s when their first record came out. He came up with some awesome vocal hooks on the record. I'd love to connect with him again, yeah.